Painter of the Heavens
a novel excerpt
by Bart Stewart
She sat down on embroidered cushions of an oaken chair. The table held a wine service, an old black book, and a candy box made of frosted glass. None of this was what she was expecting, and nervousness rose in her chest.
Lyle sat across from her and poured himself a short slug of wine. “I want to start by giving you a general overview of our situation, which I will insist that you hear out, fully. From there we’ll explore the details, down to the last scintilla.”
He settled back and pointed upward. “The autographed photos on the wall upstairs? The movie stars? Those autographs are all forgeries, Penny. Every single one of them. Forged. By me.” He had a sip of wine. “I’ve always had a talent for it. Maybe a genius. As a kid I used to forge my father’s signature on report cards. Never were any of them questioned. I’ve been doing celebrity autographs for years.”
Dismay settled into Penny’s face, and he held up a hand in a gesture of halt.
“Relax,” he said, “nobody is getting burned for any real money around here. No, the store stock is small potatoes, just my practice ground, and a place for keeping my skills honed. In the five years that I’ve been here not one autograph has ever been challenged. Not one single piece. I have a lot of satisfied customers around here.”
He paused to let all that sink in. Then he said, “About three years ago, something happened … inside of me. Hard to describe, really. But I began focusing my thoughts, and my whole life. I then dedicated myself to one project. We’re approaching its culmination now.” He sat his wine aside and took up the rectangular candy dish. “I have no intention of becoming a career criminal. I’m never breaking a law again after this one event. I always wanted to live my life as an ethical man, Penny. Had that been possible in this world, I surely would have done so. As things stand, I’m going to take action. I am going to take one big bite out of the big fish, and swim away.”
He set the glass dish in front of her and lifted the lid. A scrap of paper lay within. “Don’t touch it yet,” he said. “Can you read that, Penny?”
She squinted, and said, “O Painter of the … Heavens … What dolor…”
“Dolorous. That’s okay. It’s not meant to be very legible. Can you read the signature?”
“William … Shake … spear…” Penny drew in a short, sharp breath.
“I used a quill pen. The paper is the end sheet of a book from the 1600s. I’ve forged a letter from Shakespeare, Penny. Quite perfectly, I believe.”
He spoke in a calm tone and seemed to monitor her emotional state from one millisecond to the next. With his eyes locked on hers he pressed ahead, not giving her a chance to respond. An electric charge held between them as his mellow voice told of how Hans Green, a high school chemistry teacher, had manufactured the old style iron-gall ink. Hans had worked on the paper, too, since paper breaks down over centuries of time, becoming too absorbent. Hans had coated the ancient paper in gelatin, so the ink wouldn’t “feather” when Lyle wrote on it.
After the text was written, the letter was dipped in peroxide, which removed the gelatin and oxidized the ink to a brownish tint. After drying, their product was complete, he said. Penny was by now visibly angry, but still listening. His voice dropped into a more casual cadence. “In the beginning, I had an idea for writing an original, full-length play in the Shakespearean vernacular, and setting it in old timey type, and going to auction with that. But then I figured … nahh. A letter would be more believable, and it would make use of my penmanship talents. I’m only doing this for the money. So I produced a nice, short, signed letter. There’ve been plenty of other Shakespeare forgeries over the years, but they all had one thing in common. They always wrote too much. So, now those are all known as forgeries. This one never will be.”
Lyle braced himself by pouring and downing more wine. He reestablished a steady gaze into Penny’s troubled eyes, and said, “What’s needed now is another active participant to join in the game. I sell autographs. All of them fakes. I can’t be the one who comes forward with this letter. Every piece I’ve ever sold would be subjected to new scrutiny, and if any of them were questioned it would scuttle this one. No, having me bring the letter forward is a complete non-starter. We were originally planning to have Hans find the letter, but I’m concerned too many people know of his long friendship with me. It has to be someone nobody suspects of being associated with me. For this idea to work, there can be no lines leading back to me. See?”
“I think I see,” Penny said. “Four months of secrecy about our relationship has been so that I’m not linked to you, and you can use me in a … a criminal scheme.”
“No. No, that’s not it at all. It was so that I could be sure you had what it takes, that you were the one. Oh yes, the secrecy was all about you, Penny. That’s true. It was your audition, for the role of a lifetime. And you aced it, darling. You convinced me, with your commitment to our secrecy and your overall stand-up, stand-out quality from day one until now.”
“ … Until now,” she said.
“Until right now, when you’re ready to tell me to go jump in the pond. Yeah, I know how you’re feeling,” he said. “That’s because you haven’t heard the simplicity of your part in this, and the very great potential this idea has for transforming our lives.”
She couldn’t look at him; her head was swimming. Her eyes settled on the letter, the eerie-looking scribble on a ragged-edged, bone-white piece of paper.
Lyle said that her actual work in all this would be next to nothing. No heavy lifting! Penny was simply to “discover” the letter, tucked in the pages of a certain old Bible. “This one,” he said, picking up the black book. “It’s a standard King James Bible, only when this one was printed, James was still king.”
The pages of the 1614 Bible contained numerous bits of ephemera from the seventeenth century. Penny would simply state that she found the letter in the Bible, and she owns it. She would hire a lawyer to take the piece to auction. The lawyer would basically do all the work from then on. And that was it. Beyond that, Penny would do nothing but keep her mouth shut and maintain a low profile. The letter would be examined and authenticated by experts, and then sold at auction. It would mean a few months of waiting. That’s all.
“Oh, but on that auction day, Penny! Use your imagination! Can you comprehend what an authenticated, hand-written, signed letter by William Shakespeare would pull at a well-advertised auction? Pick a number. Pick one with lots of digits in it, and that may be how much. That could be the final sale price, Penny.”
She sat, crestfallen, still absorbing the reality of this illegal, unfeasible, unethical, scary scheme.
In his most resolute, all-business tone of voice, Lyle said, “Your participation is everything, of course.”
If Penny would not agree to participate, then everything would be cancelled and shut down. There would be no starting over with someone else. It was Penny Sturdevant and 1990 or it was zero, and three years of planning and work were for nothing.
Conversely, if she agreed to go through with her easy, simple task, then he said they both stood a very good chance of getting very, very rich. And the riches would marry their two lives together far more than any vows before a preacher ever could. For one practical reason—the money would be in Penny’s name.
“You hold the strongest position in this, Penny. Everything is in your name. Your bank account holds the money. Not mine.”
“You’re overwhelmed. It’s all right. I understand completely. You’ve not had time to process all this. Would you like some water, or a glass of wine?”
She shook her head heavily. Feeling a need to say something, she finally spoke, “If there’s so much money potential, how do you know you can trust Hans here?”
Lyle chuckled. “Hans is in for twenty percent of the net. He was responsible for the physical aspects, the ink and the paper. It was important stuff that I wasn’t so knowledgeable about. Look, he only wants to make a little money to leave to his grandkids. I’m cutting Hans a very generous deal. Have no doubts about him.”
She turned to Hans, addressing him for the first time, “And you! What makes you think you can trust him?”
Hans smiled and said, “We have an anti-murder pact!”
Penny batted her eyes, and asked, “… Oh? Do I get to have an anti-murder pact?”
“Penny. Honey. You have the least amount of work to do, and literally all of the security. Everything is in your name! Your personal security is top priority to me. No, listen to me. Listen. All the risks are quite small and entirely manageable.”
“What about the risks of going to prison for major fraud?! I could not survive that, Lyle!”
He sighed, and said, “It would never, ever come anywhere near to that point, darling. Look, this idea is my baby. I made this happen. If we have such cosmic reversals that things break down to the level of criminal charges, I will take all of the fall. Yes, and why not? Why would I have both of us take the repercussions? Just tell them I forced you to go through with it. Sure, tell them that I forced you, under threat of death. I will back you up on it all the way, and there’s not a jury in America that would give you more than a tap on the wrist. Isn’t it worth that much of a risk, for the chance at independence?”
She stared into the fire and shook her head in silence. Lyle turned and said, “Hans, we’re going to talk in private now, I think. I’ll get back to you tomorrow. Thanks for coming by.”
Hans stood, bowed slightly, and showed himself out. Lyle poured them both a healthy glass of Cabernet.
He said, “I haven’t even discussed the greatest beauty of the idea yet. You see, Penny, nobody gets hurt! We stand to get rich, and nobody gets injured. This isn’t like an armed robbery. There’ll be no violence, no pain, and no problem! The absolute worst that could possibly happen is if the forgery gets exposed after money has changed hands, and some insurance company has to compensate some auction house to reimburse the buyer. And then, boohoo, everybody with a policy at that insurance company has to pay an extra nickel a year for insurance from then on. You and I would be out of the country long before then.
“You could call this a victimless crime! Even if the buyer isn’t reimbursed, he’s gonna have to be rich as a pharaoh to afford the winning bid. I’m not going to weep for him, and you shouldn’t either! The forgery will almost certainly never be detected at all! Ever! And the only way it could cause a problem for you and me is if it’s detected in that brief window of time between money changing hands and us leaving the country. That’s just not going to happen, lover. All the authentication work will be done before we go to auction. This forgery is never going to be detected at all, and the world will have an exciting new historical find to talk about. People believe what they want to believe, Penny. Trust me, there will be plenty of people who’ll want to believe in this thing.”
She said, softly, “I wanted to believe in you.”
As if stung by that, he stopped and took a drink of wine, and then said, “You can believe in me. I want us to spend the rest of our lives together. How about that?”
It was a bold comeback. Almost compelling.
She cried out, “How can you be so cocksure it’s even going to be authenticated? What if the experts say it’s a big fake?!”
“Lots of them will,” he said. “That’s a given. Even real autographs have doubters. The press will definitely yell ‘Fake! Fake!’ Oh, that’s for certain. And it’s not a problem. We can afford to lose the skeptics. It only advertises the auction. We don’t have to convince the whole world. Just start a few well-placed people dreaming ‘What if it’s authentic?’ The bids at auction flow in from there.
“No, Penny, I can guarantee you that tons of people are going to speak up in defense of this letter. William Shakespeare is the ultimate subject for forgery. He’s both an ancient and modern cultural superstar. Only six verified samples of his handwriting exist, all signatures on legal documents. No letters. A newly discovered letter in Shakespeare’s hand? It would knock the historical antiquities market on its ass. It could easily top a million dollars at auction. People want in on that kind of magic. Auction houses sure as hell do.”
He seemed emboldened, and went on, “If nobody buys it, fine! We tried. All our effort was for nothing but laughs, but we tried, and from there we carry on with our lives. And if no money is offered then no crime exists, and you won’t have that to worry about. Right? But somewhere, some rich sucker is going to buy this thing. I know it. Because that forgery is perfect, Penny. If William Shakespeare ever wrote a note to a pal, you can look in that candy dish and see what it looked like. That … forgery … is … perfect!”
He pulled a slip of paper out of the Bible and slid it over to her, “Oh, I do excellent work. I have a written reference to back me up on that.” The swirling, feminine handwriting grabbed her at once, and silenced her in shock as she read.
Go for it! This guy Lyle knows his stuff!
Yours very truly,
It was her writing, hers down to the last little jots and curlicues, down to the wink of the smiley face used to dot the I. She held it up for close inspection, struck mute by its perfection. There was no trace of hesitation, no uncertainty, just a smooth flow of penmanship. It was her handwriting. Her personality was in it. But she hadn’t written it. He had.
She finally tore her eyes off of it to look at him, and he winked.
“Excuse me,” he said, and took the paper from her and casually dropped it into the fire. “So, anyway, I have this one big talent. Well, two maybe.”
The glass of wine looked good all of a sudden, and Penny took it up for a long drink.
According to Lyle the only thing like a weak link in the scheme is that she must always refuse to take a lie detector test. “That will dissuade some people from believing, but not everybody. Your lawyer will give the excuse that you’ve been under crushing emotional stress since your divorce, practically a nervous breakdown case, and your moods shift so much you just aren’t up for a polygraph. Say that you don’t believe in them. Say they’re inadmissible in court, and you had a friend who falsely failed a polygraph and lost a job. Anyway, no big problem. Just always refuse the poly.”
Lie detectors aside, she would need to grow a thicker skin and be prepared for a grilling, “a grueling grilling.” But only grueling in comparison to the soft, no-stress lifestyle she’d led up until then.
“I’ve heard so much about this milquetoast ex-husband of yours. Well okay, now here’s your chance to seize the day. Let’s see some gusto. Do you want a dumpy, dowdy, old-lady end to your life? Or do you want to take a stand and make something happen?
“Let people yell and cuss at you. So what?! You can always start crying. Seriously! Use tears and emotionalism as your disguise, if needed. Make your detractors into the bad guys for driving you to tears. Mostly your lawyer is going to take care of everything. But some performance skills from you could be helpful at times. With a little coaching you’ll be fine to handle tough questions. All you have to do is stick to one very simple story…
“After your divorce you needed to clear your head, so you took a trip to London, England, a place you’d always wanted to see. Oh, I didn’t mention that little perk? Yeah, I’m bankrolling a long weekend for you and one of your girlfriends in London, with spending money for antiquarian books. You have this sudden fascination for old books and you want to decorate your home with them.
“You bought loads of antiquarian books at the ‘Biggest Book Fair in England,’ and some other shops. You shipped them home and you didn’t keep all the receipts. On returning to Chapel Hill you found the crumbling letter signed William Shakespeare among some old stuff pressed between the pages of a Bible from 1614. And that’s it!
“All you’re claiming is that you found the letter and you own it. Hey, it could be an old fake, you don’t know! It’s up to the experts to decide if it’s authentic. You will claim that all the excitement has only further stressed your emotional state.
“Let the attorney do the talking. He won’t slip up and expose the ruse—because he’s not in on it. This scam, this idea, is as perfect as the letter itself. Some auction house is going to take this thing, even if the top three do not.”
He reiterated that he had three years tied up in the project and he wasn’t accepting any answer from her before twenty-four hours had passed. He assuaged her pangs about immorality with more talk of how no one gets hurt. Then she got to the core of her heartache.
“All this time, you’ve only wanted me in your life to be your accomplice in this crime.”
“No,” he said firmly. After a long pause, he went on, “This will be only our first step together, not our last. After you collect the pay-off the two of us will go away together, and that’s the day life begins for you and me. We’ll be able to buy back our lives. We’ll be free of the system, which is nothing but corruption itself. And after the first couple of years of that lifestyle, you’ll no longer have any misgivings from having said ‘I found a letter.’ We’ll pay Hans his cut, you can send your parents a box of cash, and the two of us will leave the country and get married.
“Frankly, Penny, there were other women I could have chosen to take this great step with me, this step of a lifetime. But look who I chose. You’re the one, my darling. You’re the one I want for the before and the after. I’ve seen that you can handle yourself, to the extent you’ll have to, for your part in this.
“And we go away together regardless of the outcome. Yes, that’s right. Even if not a dime is ever offered for the letter and the whole thing was for naught. I want to spend the rest of my life with you. And I only speak of the letter not selling in order to cover that possibility. Make no mistake, when you and I run away it will be with the auction proceeds of a handwritten, signed letter by William Shakespeare. But we run away, even if somehow that doesn’t happen.”
This last part reached her in a way. He seemed to take notice, and went on. “We’re getting out. We’re escaping this barren desert of women who’ve never had an orgasm and men who’ve never been in love … Penny, a man and a woman could open a hamburger stand, and after they sold a million hamburgers they would have a million dollars. You and I are going to sell one big hamburger. I’m not doing this to make me rich. I’m doing it to make us rich, and to start our new life together. Step of a lifetime, lover. We’re taking it together.”